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‘The Secret Garden’ (G)

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 13, 1993

Moviemakers tamper with children's classics at their peril, as the version of "The Secret Garden" opening today proves with dismaying certainty. Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland's rather dark and broody take on Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel proves the old axiom: If it ain't broke, don't rewrite it.

Numerous great movies have come from ripping off books, but tinkering with the text just because the copyright has lapsed and you think you have a better idea is a no-no. These pointless alterations do nothing but confuse those who know and love the book, and incite a feeling of suspicion and anxiety. One starts to sour on the movie "Garden" when it has barely begun, and parts of it are quite lovely.

There is not a lot of action in the film, and it is likely to be of little interest to anyone under the age of about 8, unless he or she is particularly literary or cerebral. The story centers on a 10-year-old girl whose beautiful young parents die in India during a cholera epidemic. The surviving servants flee, but Mary is found and sent home to distant relatives in England.

Holland has changed the cholera epidemic to an earthquake for no apparent reason. Maybe it was cheaper to build a room box and shake it rather than hire a lot of actors to die of cholera. She also concocts an ocean voyage for "earthquake orphans" that ends in some English port where they are claimed by their relatives like so much baggage -- except Mary, who is picked up by her uncle's housekeeper (played by Maggie Smith doing one of her pursed-lips turns as the redoubtable Mrs. Medlock). While this scene makes the point that Mary is unwanted, the same idea could have been imparted without this Dickensian embroidery.

It is in this early scene, in fact, that it starts to become clear that Holland's talent for pretty pictures is going to take priority over the story. And the pictures are indeed gorgeous -- the eerily beautiful Yorkshire moor and the vast stone mansion where Mary's uncle lives, dark with pre-electricity gloom and Victorian interior design. The children are pretty too: sallow, sullen Mary (Kate Maberly); her cousin, the aristocratic invalid Colin (Heydon Prowse); and hearty outdoors-boy Dickon (Andrew Knott). The young actors are quite proficient and un-sappy too -- it's not their fault if they too often seem like chessmen being moved around on the director's board, composed into picturesque tableaux.

But I haven't finished complaining about the differences from the book. Some changes admittedly are useful -- like having the children cast a magic spell to bring Colin's father back from abroad rather than sending a letter as in the book. But completely cutting the character of Dr. Craven, the invalid boy's uncle who clearly has a vested interest (inheritance) in the lad's illness, mutes what little tension there is. And having Mary find the key in a drawer instead of buried in the earth is silly. Mysteries hidden in the dirt are far more interesting to children than drawer junk! (The musical version of "Secret Garden," which played here last winter after a successful run on Broadway, had some really dumb things added to it, such as a whole bunch of characters that did not appear in the book who mysteriously appeared as ghosts. This was confusing, to say the least, especially to small children who find it difficult to tell that one lady in a Victorian ball gown is a ghost while another is not.)

The charm of "Secret Garden" endures because of its kid-power message -- that you can change your life, and more importantly you can change grown-ups, with the application of enough determination and vision. Mary becomes a healthy, sociable girl where she was once scrawny and lonely and disagreeable. She teaches Colin to control his temper, to walk and to believe that he is not, as he has been told since birth, going to die. Together they bring Colin's father back to life from his unending melancholy and create the ultimate goal of every child, a happy family. Holland, whose previous work ("Europa, Europa" and "Olivier, Olivier") has not included anything so mundane as a happy ending, seems a bit self-conscious with this joyful stuff and inserts a scene of weeping in the middle of it, but at least she doesn't try to beg off entirely.

Screenwriter Caroline Thompson adds an overlay of modern psychoanalysis to the basic theme that I found annoying. Jealousy and sexual questioning are undoubtedly part of a child's emotional landscape whatever era he lives in, but they were not major elements of this story, and seem here like infernal meddling. Holland also settles for some disconcertingly shoddy moments -- bushes sprayed with white paint to simulate frost, a dirty face that turns clean when the camera cuts to another angle. Perhaps if this sloppiness weren't juxtaposed against the lush interior of Misselthwaite Manor it wouldn't be so noticeable. As it is, the careful choices of tapestries, massive carved four-poster beds and intricate 1911 clothing show that someone, at least, knows better.

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